But a new and prominent assemblage of retailers, clothing manufacturers, environmental groups and academics plans to change that.
Calling itself the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the group intends to announce Tuesday that it is developing a comprehensive database of the environmental impact of every manufacturer, component and process in apparel production, with the aim of using that information to eventually give every garment a sustainability score.
Later, the coalition hopes to produce a label that would share some version of that score with shoppers, giving them a much more detailed view into the supply of fabrics, zippers, dyes, threads, buttons and grommets that come together to form the clothing they buy, as well as what impact the creation of that clothing has on both people and the planet.
The coalition includes middle-market companies like Wal-Mart, J. C. Penney, H&M and Hanes, along with more traditionally environmentally minded manufacturers of rugged outdoor clothing like Patagonia and Timberland. The 30 founding members also include Duke University, the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, the labor rights group Verité, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Americans spent roughly $340 billion on clothing and shoes last year, which is about 25 percent of the global market, and virtually all of it — 99 percent for footwear and 98 percent for clothes — came from somewhere else, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association. And the various pieces and parts of any single garment — a jacket, say, or pair of pants — often come from such a diverse multinational chain of fabric mills, dye operations and assembly plants that quantifying the environmental impact of a single item is nearly impossible.
Initially, the coalition wants to help individual companies clean up their supply chains. Company members have all agreed to chip in some money to begin the effort, with the larger companies being asked for additional “seed funding” to support the development of a sustainability indexing tool. Rick Ridgeway, who heads sustainability efforts for Patagonia and is the chairman of the new coalition, estimated that the group would spend $2 million by the end of 2011 on developing the tool.
“People are at such different points on the sustainability journey, and working together can accelerate our ability to make change,” said Alex Tomey, a vice president for product development and design at Wal-Mart, which has worked closely with Patagonia to get the coalition off the ground.
The obscure nature of the global supply chain for apparel has long been a concern to many environmental groups, including Greenpeace, which reported on the Xintang textile mills in December. While individual manufacturers and smaller segments of the apparel industry have begun trying to quantify their effects, a robust study of the entire life cycle of the apparel and footwear industries is only now getting under way.
“The apparel supply chain is long and quite complicated, and many of our current apparel companies — brand companies — don’t really own all the production facilities and factories,” said Huantian Cao, an associate professor of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware. “So even for a company that has a label or brand on the product, it might not be easy to study the whole life cycle of that product, because so much of that supply chain is out of their control.”
The coalition’s tool is meant to be a database of scores assigned to all the players in the life cycle of a garment — cotton growers, synthetic fabric makers, dye suppliers, textile mill owners, as well as packagers, shippers, retailers and consumers — based on a variety of social and environmental measures like water and land use, energy efficiency, waste production, chemical use, greenhouse gases and labor practices.
A clothing company designer could then use the tool to select materials and suppliers, computing an overall sustainability score based on industry standards. If the score exceeds the company’s own sustainability goals — or if competitive pressures arising from a consumer label are compelling the company to bring scores down — designers could revise their choices with the tool.
Such a tool is a work in progress. It draws heavily from two earlier efforts — an environmental design tool developed by Nike, and an “Eco Index” begun by the Outdoor Industry Association last year. But these afford only a partial or approximate look at the potential effects of discrete industry segments.
In order to bring broader life-cycle data to the effort, the coalition is also working with the Sustainability Consortium, which is developing sustainability measurement and reporting standards across many product categories.
The new coalition is still debating how to formalize its structure, and because it plans to focus, at least in the short term, on the supply chain tool, consumers might not see a sustainability label in stores for some time. “The coalition members see the need and value of a consumer-facing rating for products,” the group states on its Web site. “However, they appreciate the complexity involved in arriving at a single numeric score.”
But Jeffrey Swartz, the chief executive of Timberland, says he is optimistic that a label is only a matter of time.
“This is really filling a void,” Mr. Swartz said. “The government has standards for miles per gallon on a car, but we have no real standards for clothing. This will ultimately put the power in the hands of the consumers, because the apparel industry is saying out loud, ‘We’re going to find a way to disclose to you what’s behind this purchase decision — beyond color, size and fit.’ ”
With just a few clicks on Google Maps, anyone can call up a satellite image of blue dye and other chemicals washing downriver from textile mills in Xintang, China — the world capital of blue jeans production.